'General contractor' works to keep Omnicom family harmonious, happy

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Several occupational metaphors could be used to explain, at least in part, Susan Smith Ellis's duties at Omnicom Group. One could say she's a kind of matchmaker, hooking up both existing and potential clients with Omnicom agencies. Or, you could think of her as the holding company's resident interagency psychologist, massaging or even repairing egos that are wounded by the decisions she helps clients make, such as which agency should take on which client project. Ms. Smith Ellis, however, has her own idea for a point of comparison.

"I would be a great general contractor," she said. "I know the best plumbers and the best electricians and I know how to find the ones who work really well together so there are no fistfights on the site."

She's down-to-earth and pragmatic, is fitting for Omnicom, a holding company whose brand is basically not to have one and whose mission is to make sure the financial wiring and pipes are working right so its marquee worldwide agencies, such as DDB and BBDO, can gain revenue in the marketplace and glory at the award shows. Her chunk of that mission, since taking on her position as exec VP last September, is to figure out what agency team to put forward in holding-company-level reviews and to coordinate the agencies that work on PepsiCo's business, in addition to business development and other tasks.

Strangely, though, given Ms. Smith Ellis' sway, it's safe to say that if Omnicom had its druthers a large part of her job wouldn't be necessary. Even Ms. Smith Ellis admits, "I'd like to see the day when a client calls up and I just give them the phone numbers for BBDO or TBWA."


But reviews like Intel's where the chip maker asked holding companies to present them with an agency team and massive, consolidated accounts like PepsiCo necessitate her role as well as those of her counterparts at competitors like Interpublic and WPP. As a result, one of Ms. Smith Ellis' major charges is figuring out not only what strengths and weaknesses Omnicom agencies have but what kinds of personalities inhabit them.

"She's trusted because she's agency-neutral," said Roy Spence, president-co-founder of GSD&M. "She seeks to build bridges and she's always searching for a way to work things out. And in a company with as many clients and agencies as Omnicom that's an interesting job."

Ms. Smith Ellis, 51, first came to Omnicom in 1998, when she was hired by BBDO to develop the agency's interactive capabilities. Two years later, she moved on to Diversified Agency Services, working with the PR, direct marketing and other specialty shops within DAS to figure out their own digital strategies.

It hasn't been a straight route for Ms. Smith Ellis. Prior to joining BBDO, she took a six-year break during which she concentrated on raising her two children, now 10 and 11. Prior to that she worked a 13-year stint at the then-independent Hill Holliday, which she helped grow from a medium-size shop into an international presence.

Not afraid of being challenged even in her free time, she worked to raise money for then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush while living in Democratic Boston. Mr. Bush happens to be the first cousin of her husband, John Ellis, a former newspaper columnist and magazine editor. He is probably best-known for being repeatedly reviled as the Fox News analyst who called Florida for Mr. Bush during the 2000 election.

"That really taught me the difference between spin and reality," she said.

Just Asking

What's it like to have George and Bar and George W. as in-laws? My husband's family is a nation-state. It's huge. From a personal side, it's fabulous to have a great big extended family. My kids have been to the White House and the Oval Office.

How's the second term going? He seems very comfortable in the role. He's more presidential. Yet he is not in love with the idea of himself as president.

What are your politics? I followed the typical trajectory of all people. I worked for George McGovern and I couldn't believe he lost. I moved to London during the Reagan years and followed

Margaret Thatcher and how she was changing things there. That was the beginning of my move to the right, but I am a registered independent, except for I registered Republican to vote for George W. in the primary.

Do you feel like you're in a minority around here? It's weird. We have many friends who don't ever speak about politics around us. They don't mention it us because they think so differently about it that they don't want to hurt our feelings.

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